The Third International: What was COMINTERN?

COMINTERN, an association of national communist parties, was established in 1919 and served primarily as a means of Soviet control, despite its proclaimed goal of promoting global revolution.

Jan 20, 2023By Tsira Shvangiradze, MA Diplomacy and Int'l Politics, BA Int'l Relations
what was comintern communist international
Poster of Communist International, 1920, via Queen’s University Belfast; with Logo of the COMINTERN World Congress.


Communist International (COMINTERN), also called the Third International, was an international organization that united the communist parties of different countries from 1919 to 1943. It was founded by Vladimir Lenin and had 28 members across the Soviet Union. The underlying motivation behind establishing COMINTERN was to spread the ideas of revolutionary socialism and to counterbalance the reformist socialism of the Second International. The clash between these two organizations occurred due to different approaches to World War I and the October Revolution in Russia.


After the appointment of Joseph Stalin as the head of the Soviet Union, COMINTERN was considered the carrier of the interests of the USSR. Between 1919 and 1935, COMINTERN conducted seven World Congresses in Moscow, Russia. To avoid antagonizing the United States and the United Kingdom in the last years of World War II, Joseph Stalin disbanded the COMINTERN in 1943. The Communist Information Bureau (COMINFORM) replaced it in 1947.


The Founding Congress of COMINTERN

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The October Revolution agitational-propaganda train arrives in Sorotskinskoe Station in 1919, via Tate/The New Yorker


The creation of the Third International was a result of the three-way split in the Second International due to the diverging approaches to the issue of World War I. The Second International was an organization of socialist and labor parties formed on 14 July 1889. Unlike Third International, it presented a rather loose federation that did not have an executive body for 11 years.


The “right” wing supported the nationalistic approaches of the respective national governments—the “center” aimed at reuniting the Second International in the name of world peace. The third group was led by Vladimir Lenin, who rejected both nationalism and pacifism. Lenin’s philosophy entailed transnational class war, promoting “civil war, not civil peace.”


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Moscow hosted the First Congress of COMINTERN on March 2–6, 1919. Fifty-two delegates from 34 parties attended the Congress. They decided to create an Executive Committee composed of representatives from the most significant communist groups and parties. The Executive Committee should have elected a five-member bureau to oversee the COMINTERN’s daily operations. However, such a bureau was not established. Three socialist revolutionaries, Vladimir Lenin, Leon Trotsky, and Christian Rakovsky, later appointed Grigory Zinoviev as the Chairman of the Executive Committee to manage the COMINTERN from 1919 to 1926. Vladimir Victor L. Kibaltchitch, Vladimir Ossipovich Mazin, and Angelica Balabanoff served as the secretaries to Zinoviev.


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Lenin delivers an address at the Uritsky Theater by Isaak Brodsky, 1924, via Fine Art America


Vladimir Lenin outlined his revolutionary strategy in his work What Is to Be Done? (1902). Lenin himself and his philosophy remained the organization’s driving force until his death in January 1924. Under Lenin’s direction, COMINTERN’s main objective was to establish communist parties worldwide to support the worldwide proletarian revolution. The parties also adhered to his democratic centralism philosophy, which stated that communist parties should make decisions democratically and adhere to those decisions in a disciplined manner. During this time, COMINTERN was elevated to serve as the general staff of the global revolution.


Like the Soviet communist party, a smaller presidium served as the COMINTERN’s top executive body, and an executive committee acted when congresses weren’t in session. Power gradually centralized in these highest organs, and their decisions were binding on all member parties. Hence, Soviet dominance over the COMINTERN was firmly established early on. The headquarters were located in Moscow, and the Soviet party had a disproportionate presence in the administrative organizations of COMINTERN.


The Second Congress of COMINTERN

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Vladimir Lenin speaking in Moscow to Red Army soldiers departing for the Polish front, in 1920. Leon Trotsky and Lev Borisovich Kamenev, behind, are on the steps to the right. Photograph by G. P. Goldshtein, 1920, via Tate/The New Yorker


In August 1920, the Second Congress of COMINTERN was held. The background of holding the Second Congress portrayed the capitalist order still in the center, however weakened by the impact of World War I and the Bolshevik revolution in Russia. Vladimir Lenin stipulated that “as an expression of true workers’ power,” the First Congress of COMINTERN aimed to set the framework for Soviet-based rule.


Most member groups and parties of COMINTERN were still mired in the weaknesses of the Second International, which had collapsed at the outset of World War I in 1914. There were no clear criteria for membership in the new Communist International. To address this issue, during the meetings, Vladimir Lenin presented his Twenty-One Conditions to the organization’s members as prerequisites for becoming members of the COMINTERN. The primary purpose of these conditions was the demarcation between the communist parties and other socialist groups.


To become affiliated with COMINTERN, every party was obliged to adopt communist propaganda and agitation, and to remove reformists and centrists from every responsible post in the workers’ movement. All of these resulted in the division of many European parties. For example, the French Section of the Workers International changed itself to the French Communist Party, the Communist Party of Spain was established in 1920, the Communist Party of Italy in 1921, the Belgian Communist Party in September 1921, and so on.


The Stalin Era

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Communists’ party demonstration in Union Sq. May Day, between 1930 and 1940, via The Library of Congress, Washington DC


By the time the Third Congress of COMINTERN met in June-July of 1921, the revolutionary tide in Europe had receded, and Joseph Stalin was emerging as the new leader of the Soviet Union.


Vladimir Lenin died in 1924, and Stalin succeeded him. This is when COMINTERN saw a shift from embarking on the world proletariat revolution to defending it. In 1925, Joseph Stalin elaborated on the doctrine of  Socialism in One Country that Nikolai Bukharin published in his brochure, Can We Build Socialism in One Country in the Absence of the Victory of the West-European Proletariat? (April 1925).


Nikolai Bukharin was a Bolshevik and Marxist theoretician and economist who emerged as a prominent leader of COMINTERN. The policy of Socialism in One Country implied strengthening socialism within the country rather than globally. Since European communist revolutions had failed from 1917 to 1923, particularly in Germany, Hungary, and Italy, Joseph Stalin and Nikolai Bukharin moved on to constructing socialism within the Soviet Union.


In 1926, Gregory Zinoviev left the post of Chairman of the Executive Committee after Stalin adopted a new policy of developing and safeguarding communism within the Soviet Union. Bukharin was appointed as the next chairman. However, in 1929, he was expelled from the party as a critic of Stalin’s sudden policy reversals regarding COMINTERN. Bukharin strongly opposed Stalin’s forced collectivization. Unlike Stalin, he believed that agricultural modernization should proceed at a slower rate.


At the same time, under Stalin, members of the COMINTERN were instructed to adopt extremely confrontational, militant, and ultra-left approaches supporting Stalin’s belief that the capitalist system was approaching its ultimate collapse. This sudden policy change was not aligned with Bukharin’s ideas of developing COMINTERN.


The Great Purges of Stalin

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The Strikes of June by Boris Taslitzky, 1936, via Tate, London


Stalin’s well-known purges that began in the 1930s significantly affected activists of COMINTERN inside and outside the borders of the Soviet Union. Stalin reshaped the COMINTERN so that it became highly infused with Soviet secret police, foreign intelligence agencies, and informers who were all operating under the COMINTERN guise. Out of the 492 COMINTERN employees, 133 were executed as part of Stalin’s instructions during the Great Purges. Several hundred German communists and antifascists who had either emigrated to the Soviet Union from Nazi Germany or had been persuaded to do so were put to death, and more than a thousand were deported to Germany. The COMINTERN high-level officials, including Grigory Zinoviev and Nikolai Bukharin, were no exception.


A German political author and historian of the Soviet Union, Wolfgang Leonhard, who experienced this period in Moscow, described the situation in his political autobiography, published in the 1950s:


The foreign communists living in the Soviet Union were particularly affected. In a few months, more functionaries of the COMINTERN apparatus were arrested than had been put together by all bourgeois governments in twenty years. Just listing the names would fill entire pages.”


The Last Congress of COMINTERN & Its Dissolution

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Serbian antisemitic propaganda poster “I acted according to your wishes, the Comintern has been dissolved,” 1941, via OMNIA


The seventh and last congress of the COMINTERN was organized in Moscow from July 25 to August 20, 1935. The Congress aimed to support the establishment of the Popular Front against rapidly rising fascism on the European continent. This policy argued that Communist Parties should seek to form a Popular Front with all parties that opposed fascism.


The Seventh Congress also rejected COMINTERN’s initial goal of revolutions overthrowing capitalism. Leon Trotsky, a Russian-Ukrainian Marxist revolutionary, political theorist, and politician, declared the death of COMINTERN and the need for a new International.


In 1938, the Fourth International was established. Its founders believed that the Third International had become thoroughly bureaucratized and Stalinized and could no longer regenerate itself into a proper revolutionary organization. In addition, millions of Communists and Soviet supporters worldwide were shocked by the Nazi-Soviet Non-Aggression Pact in August 1939, significantly eroding the COMINTERN’s support.


The Third International was no longer a valuable tool for Soviet leadership after the Soviet army defeated the Nazi conquest in 1941, significantly boosting Russia’s diplomatic and military position. Instead, COMINTERN threatened to become an obstacle to efficient cooperation between Russia and the Western nations. Consequently, COMINTERN was dissolved in May 1943 by its Executive Committee.


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J.Stalin talking with representatives of delegations of communist parties at the VII, the extended plenum of Comintern by I.Vefkhvadze, via Stalin Museum, Gori


On May 15, 1943, a declaration of the Executive Committee was sent out to all sections of the International, calling for the dissolution of COMINTERN. The declaration read:


“The historical role of the Communist International, organized in 1919 as a result of the political collapse of the overwhelming majority of the old pre-war workers’ parties, consisted in preserving the teachings of Marxism from vulgarisation and distortion by opportunist elements of the labor movement. But long before the war, it became increasingly clear that, to the extent that the internal, as well as the international situation of individual countries, became more complicated, the solution to the problems of the labor movement of each individual country through the medium of some international center would meet with insuperable obstacles.”


The declaration also asked the member sections to approve the following:


“To dissolve the Communist International as a guiding center of the international labor movement….”


The International Department of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union was established about at the same time as the COMINTERN was disbanded in 1943. However, it is uncertain what its particular responsibilities were during the organization’s initial years.


Following the Paris Conference in June 1947 that discussed monetary reparations, territorial adjustments, and political commitments intended to promote democracy and peace after World War II, Stalin assembled several major European communist organizations in September 1947 and established the COMINFORM, or Communist Information Bureau. It was frequently mistaken for the COMINTERN, as its main functions were the revival of institutional links among communist parties after COMINTERN’s dissolution. The Communist parties of Bulgaria, Czechoslovakia, France, Hungary, Italy, Poland, Romania, the Soviet Union, and Yugoslavia were all part of this network. Following Stalin’s death in 1953, the COMINFORM was dissolved in 1956.

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By Tsira ShvangiradzeMA Diplomacy and Int'l Politics, BA Int'l RelationsTsira is an international relations specialist based in Tbilisi, Georgia. She holds a MA in Diplomacy and International Politics and a BA in International Relations from Tbilisi State University. In her spare time, she contributes articles in the field of political sciences and international relations.